‘Them That Follow’ is a B-Movie Exploitation Flick Posing as Religious Criticism
For about 45 minutes, Them That Follow avoids the exploitative trap that snags many films about religious fanaticism. The congregation of the Holy Ghost Church, led by Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins), handles poisonous rattlers in the woods of Appalachia as a means to feel close to God.
Among the congregants are Childs’ daughter Mara (Alice Englert), her best friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever), her forbidden love Augie (Thomas Mann), Augie’s parents Zeke and Hope (Jim Gaffigan and Olivia Colman) and her betrothed, Garret (Lewis Pullman).
THEM THAT FOLLOW ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage
Written by: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage
Starring: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Olivia Colman, Lewis Pullman, Kaitlyn Dever, Jim Gaffigan
Running time: 98 min
It’s always hard for films like these to tow the line between observation and judgement, but directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage snake-handle the church services with an objective observational lens. They never make audience feel like we should be judging these characters for their beliefs.
Then a snake inevitably bites a church member, and Them That Follow makes one exploitative, poverty-porn choice after another, careening toward a climax that’s less incisive than it thinks it is. It wants to be an indictment of unchecked patriarchal faith and purity culture, and comes within striking distance of making a cohesive point, but in the end, its insistence on shock undercuts its more thoughtful thesis.
As the film opens, Mara is in love with Augie, who’s started to distance himself from the Holy Ghost Church. But congregant Garret has proposed to Mara, a union that her father blesses. Mara is also pregnant with Augie’s baby, a fact that the film goes to Romeo and Juliet-levels of dramatic irony to conceal.
The first half of the film slowly uncoils itself as a character drama about toxic masculinity and purity culture in the church and how that poison infects all who subscribe to it, especially the women. The women of the church call Lemuel “Master”. Mara must undergo a painful home remedy OB-GYN exam to determine her “purity” before her upcoming nuptials to Garret. Garret obsesses over how pure Mara is and becomes blinded by jealousy when Mara dares to pray for another man. And when Mara reveals her pregnancy to Lemuel, the only explanation is that God has punished him with a sinful daughter, and the only remedy is to make Mara hold a poisonous rattler to test her faith.
The film’s third act ratchets these thematic elements up to 11, when a snake bites Augie during his effort to prove to Mara that he is willing to do anything to be with her, including cleansing his “sin” in a faith tradition in which he doesn’t even believe. Traditional medicine is out of the question, what with snake handling being illegal and all. If Augie goes to a hospital, the law will come to Holy Ghost Church and shut down the congregation. And so begins the film’s descent into shock for shock’s sake.
After the snake bite, the directors subject us to a sexual assault/near rape, an arm amputation with a buzzsaw, and another horrific snake-handling encounter, all to hammer the audience over the head that this church system is toxic. The camera shifts from observation to downright judgment of the institution these characters belong to, but not the characters themselves.
Those characters, despite having names ripped from a pulpy exploitation flick (Sister Hope Slaughter, Mara Childs), make Them That Follow worth seeing. Goggins as a rattlesnake preacher is a match made in Heaven, and he plays the role with a sinister benevolence, not unlike many toxic church leaders in America today. Colman, an Oscar winner for The Favourite, imbues her Sister Slaughter with much more emotion than was written. Lewis Pullman (Bad Times at the El Royale) plays a “nice guy” a little too well. Newcomer Alice Englert is the cornerstone of this film’s foundation, turning in a performance that never pulls any punches, and is poignant to the last shot. Despite all that has happened to her, she still clings to her faith at times, a contradiction that may ring true for many former church members.
If only the film’s script were as authentic as its characters.